The sophomore slump explained, maybe

I’ve got an idea—a theory—and it pertains to both music and books. And I suppose, really, it pertains to anything creative where there are ultimately followup efforts. It might seem kind of obvious, but if so, it begs the question: why is it still unexpected?

For starters, the “sophomore slump”: why are people so surprised by this phenomenon? Books, music, movies—no media is safe from this label. It’s ostensibly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “This album/book/film is totally not as good as his/her first one.” To me, that is what should be obvious.

Writers, like all artists, [typically] spend years practicing their art before they are discovered; years working on that first big project—honing his or her style, finding his or her voice, sentence cadence, sense of humor. That first project is the author’s culmination of everything they’ve learned. If he or she gets discovered for that work, readers will automatically and inherently have a set of expectations for a followup work by that writer (or musician or film director/actor).

However, herein lies the proverbial rub:

When artists are signed to contracts, there is typically a timeline—an expectation that a sophomore followup will be produced within a year, maybe two. Even though the writer (artist) has found and honed their style, is it not ridiculous to expect a product as complete and revised and polished as the artist’s first effort? Even with a better idea of where to start and less of a need for revising (though, of course, not an absent need for), I would think—just quickly, off the top of my head—the artist would still need at least half as much time as they spent previously to create a work on par with his or her debut effort. [N.B. no actual statistical or mathematical formula or equation was used to come up with this estimate.]

But indeed, this is not the way art-as-a-profession works. Writers (and musicians, directors, et al.) have a contract and a deadline. If you are, say, Adam Levin, author of the astonishing and epic 1,030 page (debut) novel The Instructions, you would be hard pressed to recreate that success in only a year or two. Fortunately, Levin is a McSweeney’s author, so he’s probably got a more lenient timeline written into his contract. Plus both Levin and McSweeney’s are smart: his sophomore effort is Hot Pink, a collection of stories (collected over the period of time he was writing The Instructions), so the expectations will, of course, be different, and the quality will match the expectations, thus (in all likelihood) avoiding the “sophomore slump,” e.g.

This also leads to another interesting phenomenon: artists denouncing—even hating—their earlier work. I was discussing this on Twitter, in fact. It seems almost like it’s trendy for artists to rail against the work that established them. And, I think, it’s almost arrogant. It seems as if the artist is saying: “Look at this utter piece of shit that got me famous! It was so shitty, and yet, it’s better than the majority of what’s out there, especially work so shitty, it isn’t even getting published. What I’m creating now? This is my art’s true form!” Maybe I’m overreacting, but this sentiment that seems more prevalent than it should be is a lot like biting the hand that feeds you. And if that is not the sentiment the author truly believes, they may say they feel—or even actually feel—that way because it’s become sort of the status quo, i.e. You’ve really made it once you can finally hate your old work.

What happened to knowing your roots and not forgetting where you came from?

Maybe I only feel this way because I haven’t “made it” yet. But I do recognize that some of my best work is still some of my earliest—borne out of those eureka!-type epiphany moments writers have when the words, rhythm and tone all come together exactly as you imagined the story in your head, and it’s perfect. I still love those stories. It makes me kind of sad to think I might one day hate them. But I’m also an against-the-grain goer, so even if I do someday hate those stories, I’ll probably still profess to love them, you know, just to be different[/difficult].

What a tangled fucking web this all is…

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2 thoughts on “The sophomore slump explained, maybe

  1. As if these sort of things can be quantified to absolute certainty anyway. Comparing literature is not the same thing as comparing chemical compositions…and writing is not a straight upward progressing either. It’s a wandering path through the forest. Wait, or am I thinking of revenge?

  2. joemowens says:

    The sound of one hand clapping is the last thing you hear before the ninja assassin sends you hurtling from this mortal coil…

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